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Coffee With Carolyn Griffin
The leader of Alexandria's MetroStage talks about its history, future and theater in Alexandria.
Carolyn Griffin, the relentlessly positive Producing Artistic Director of MetroStage, has led Alexandria’s only professional theater since 1984. Griffin moved to Parkfairfax in 1969 and pursued her first career as a school psychologist. She became involved with the theater soon after earning her MBA from Georgetown University in 1984. She reflected on the changes in Alexandria’s theater environment during her involvement with MetroStage and on the future of live theater.
In 2022 MetroStage will open a new theater in the Venue, an Old Town North Carr Companies condominium. The new theater has been designed by Alexandria architect Skip Maginniss who has designed four MetroStage theaters. Griffin said, “He does beautiful work and he understands me; he understands MetroStage and he understands what our intention is in terms of creating an environment that will serve the work and the public by being an intimate space…I treasure the two, three, five person shows that can be done on a semi-thrust stage with audiences so close to the actors.”
Griffin said, “We’re the oldest professional theater in Northern Virginia. We’re the only professional theater in Alexandria, so it [MetroStage’s founding] was a significant step at that point in 1984.”
Griffin pointed to the dramatic increase in the number of regional professional theaters in the Washington area since MetroStage’s founding. She said, “We have been Alexandria’s representative all along…we have people from all over the country who will come see a show because they follow small professional theaters” in their home communities.
Alexandria has a community theater tradition. Griffin said, “A community that has grown up with a community theater sometimes doesn’t really know the difference” between community theater and professional theater or understand the necessary difference in ticket prices. She said “My actors are the best of the DC metro artists and are earning real salaries for their work on stage in addition to receiving health and pension benefits from their union. We cast locally and nationally and some have been on Broadway and in Broadway tours…I have fabulous talent on my stage. That was the intention from the beginning and that what was we have committed to doing and have absolutely done.”
In 1987 MetroStage opened with 65 seats. The new theater in the 900 block of North Fairfax Street will have 110 seats. Griffin said, “Some might not call that progress, but I call it sticking with your original mission and doing what you do and what you are committed to because you believe in the intimacy of a small theater and what it offers to an audience.”
Griffin’s commitment to a diverse repertory goes back to MetroStage’s founding. She said, “What we did from day one is we offered a very diverse group of productions, performances, actors, artists—it was just part of what we did. Now, all of a sudden, there is a wave of diversity in the last couple of years—everybody is doing diverse work. I have a 30-year record of doing diverse work. It’s one of the things that brought in audiences from around the Beltway.”
Griffin said “Everything’s changed. I grew up with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the next generation grew up with Sondheim” but, other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, Griffin is not sure who will shape the future of live theater. She said, “But, those of us doing live theater believe in it and will continue doing it as long as we can and hope that it will continue.”
Griffin notes that subscription patterns have also changed and that the practice of subscribing to multiple theaters has been declining. MetroStage’s flex passes allow patrons to select productions from what Griffin describes as MetroStage’s typical eclectic season. She said, “There are so many choices in so many theaters in the metro area—you have to roll with it… People like to pick and choose.”
Ticket discounting has also increased. She said that “you can almost always find a discounted ticket and that impacts on box office.” Griffin believes that while the business of live theater has changed, “the kind of work we do and the stories we tell” has stayed consistent with MetroStage’s mission and esthetic.
Griffin thinks Alexandria has been very lucky to have been consistently designated as an arts destination city. She said, “There are lots of really fine arts organizations—the Art League, the Torpedo Factory, MetroStage, the Alexandria Symphony, and so many choral groups—There is lots of art in the city. Between the history and the arts and now the waterfront it’s a vibrant city. Certainly, 30 years ago we could never have imagined a waterfront that is alive every night of the week.”
Griffin is on the boards of several Alexandria arts organizations, including the Alexandria Arts Alliance. She said, “I would say that the commitment of the artists to the city is greater than the commitment of the city to the artists” and that “the level of commitment by the artists is really admirable and significant. The city appreciates its artists, it just doesn’t budget for them the way surrounding jurisdictions do.”
She believes that MetroStage’s new theater will be evidence of the city’s commitment to art. “I want to see everyplace you turn around a visible expression of art,” she said of the Arts and Cultural District planned for Old Town North. “We’ve been in a parking lot for 20 years and all of a sudden [MetroStage] will be on North Fairfax Street across from a park, next to tennis courts, and visible from the street—[MetroStage] has never been visible from the street before.”
Griffin noted that MetroStage’s corporate and business partners, for example the Carr Companies, have been supportive for decades as MetroStage relocated first to make way for the Carlyle project on Duke Street and moved later to Old Town North to the former Smoot Lumber Company site. She laughed and said, “We go from one condemned building to the next.”
MetroStage’s first theater in 1987 was built for $12,000 with support from Howard Rooks, Roger Machanic and other business leaders. The new theater will cost significantly more and will offer patrons a choice between traditional theater seating and café tables and seating. Griffin said, “This is like Blues Alley meets MetroStage…The flexibility is quite exciting. Long before other theaters we allowed you to take your drinks in” to a performance.
Griffin said, “I’ve never wavered from my commitment because I absolutely believe in the work I’m presenting to the public and the work I’m offering to the artists. In both cases, it’s meaningful, it’s important, and, I believe, serves the city well.”